Monday, November 24, 2008

Eggplant With A High Wow Factor

November has always been my favorite of the autumn months, and not just because I have so many friends’ birthdays to celebrate. Many complain about how short the days are, but as one who does her best creative work when it’s dark, I always feel weirdly energized by the long nights, as though my creativity is sparked in inverse proportion to what’s happening in nature. The trees are not quite bare but are quickly getting there, and I love walking through the park with the crunch of fallen autumn leaves underfoot. The air is cool enough that I finally had to haul out my long wool coat, getting ready for the inevitable frigid temperatures we will have in a few weeks. And while the full-blown craziness of the holiday season hasn’t yet begun, there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.

Since Official Party Season is almost upon us, I want to share a few recipes in these next weeks which will take you gracefully through whatever occasions are on your social calendar. Whether you are hosting your own shindig or contributing a dish to someone else’s event, it’s important to have a few stand-by dishes in your repertoire that can be prepared with minimal fuss for a big pay-off. I love to make food that elicits a “WOW!” from people after a single bite, and this Smoky Roasted Eggplant Dip definitely falls into that category.

This is a recipe that I make year-round, but it’s especially nice in the colder months when I don’t mind turning on the oven, and I love the heady aroma of roasting vegetables wafting through my apartment. It can be prepared in advance or served immediately, and I enjoy it immensely whether it is served warm or at room temperature. I like to accompany this with pita bread cut into small triangles, drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, and toasted till crisp. But it is also delicious when scooped up with endive leaves, and I’ve been known to dunk bell pepper strips or baby carrots in it as well.

The ingredients are straightforward, with eggplant providing the bulk of the dish with peppers and onions rounding it out. The raw vegetables are a riot of colors, even after the eggplant is stripped of its deep aubergine skin and cut into spongy little cubes. Red onions and bell peppers will add sweetness and body to the mixture, and a few slivered garlic cloves are usually a good idea for any roasted vegetable dish in my book. After tossing with just enough olive oil to lightly coat, the cubed veggies spend time roasting in a hot oven until they soften and caramelize, practically melting into each other.

This recipe was adapted from one in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Whereas Ina Garten simply purees her roasted eggplant mélange with a little tomato paste and olive oil with delicious results, I have tossed a little Spanish flair into my version with the addition of smoked paprika and sherry vinegar. I think that’s where the “WOW!” factor really comes into play.

 I love the sultriness of Spanish smoked paprika, also called Pimenton de la Vera, and it can range in heat from Mild to Bittersweet to Hot. Once you try it, I can guarantee that you will find yourself looking for any excuse to incorporate it into your savory dishes! This gorgeous smoked paprika will build layers of flavor to your food, adding depth and roundness while at the same time making your taste buds dance, and it is definitely worth seeking out in your grocery store. (McCormick is probably the most readily available brand in your average grocery store, and there are even more intense varieties, such as Safinter and La Tienda. If you can't find it in your local store, you can order it from such sites as Penzeys or La Tienda.) The Pimenton adds a beautiful smoky dimension to this roasted eggplant spread, a dip that is already earthy and grounded with the slow-roasted vegetables pureed into a comforting spread. And I love the way the sherry vinegar adds an unexpected bright note to the mixture, truly making it sing.

My Smoky Roasted Eggplant Dip is appropriate for many occasions. I can imagine a Spanish-themed wine&cheese party featuring nutty Manchego and pungent blue Cabrales cheeses accompanied by Manzanilla olives, Marcona almonds and slices of chorizo, where this eggplant spread would fit in perfectly. If you are responsible for providing appetizers for your Thanksgiving feast, serving this hearty dip with crudités would be an excellent way to offset the heavy starch factor and inevitable carb-coma that accompany the traditional holiday meal. And if you’re going to a party to celebrate a friend’s recent book-signing, as I did today, then this roasted eggplant dip is an ideal thing to bring to the celebration! (See how versatile it is?)

My friend Ed Valentine, a wonderful playwright and writer for Nickelodeon, just had one of his plays published in an anthology of plays, The Best of En Avant Playwrights, and there was a reading and a book-signing at the Barnes&Noble at Lincoln Center this afternoon. It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to attend such an event at a major store where the one of the authors wielding the autograph pen is a dear friend of mine, and I was so proud of him! Ed is a delightfully imaginative writer and incredible friend, a joyful story-teller and a huge-hearted human being who is a great inspiration to his many friends. He continually challenges us all to dream boldly and aim high, and he has been one of my biggest supporters in all of my creative endeavors over the past decade, especially with my writing. (Thank you, Ed!)

I was thrilled to be there along with many of our friends to cheer him on at the Barnes&Noble event, and I’m very happy that I managed to get my own signed copy of the anthology, because it promptly sold out within minutes! Of course we had to have a party afterwards, and the bubbly flowed freely as we celebrated Ed throughout the course of a very happy evening.

On a side note, my roasted eggplant dip was a festive addition to the party, sampled by everyone as it made its merry way from the kitchen to the middle of the living room. I am pleased to report that nearly everyone who tasted it responded with some variation on “whoa, what is that?! WOW!” I invite you to try this recipe for yourself. I think you'll agree that the wow-factor of this is quite high.

Adapted from a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten
If you can’t find the Spanish smoked paprika, you could substitute a teaspoon of regular sweet paprika. It won’t be quite as smoky and interesting, but it will still be delicious. I have often made this using oregano or marjoram instead of the thyme leaves, both of which also work nicely. Serve with toasted pita bread or store-bought pita chips, or with endive leaves.

1 medium (or 2 small) eggplant, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
2 red bell peppers, halved, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large red onion, peeled cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large garlic cloves, slivered
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more for roasting if needed
Salt and pepper
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons smoked paprika, or more to taste
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried), plus a few more for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400°. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with foil.

In a large mixing bowl, toss the eggplant, pepper, red onion and garlic with just enough olive oil to lightly coat. Season with salt and pepper and spread out in a single layer on the two foil-lined baking sheets. Roast the vegetables for about 45 minutes, stirring once, until they are tender and browned. Let cool slightly.

Place the roasted vegetables in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the tomato paste, smoked paprika, sherry vinegar and thyme leaves. Pulse several times to blend, and taste for balance and seasoning. At this point, you also might want to add a bit more smoked paprika or a splash of sherry vinegar. Be judicious with these seasonings as they pack a punch, so add a small amount at a time, letting your palate guide you as you balance the flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and scatter the additional thyme leaves on top before serving. Makes about 2 cups.

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